Flash Of Genius: Patent System Propaganda Made Into A Movie
from the unfortunate dept
I’ve been seeing previews of the new movie, Flash of Genius (which opens today) everywhere, and a few folks have asked my opinion of it. Over at Against Monopoly, there’s as pretty good takedown of the premise of the movie. The story of Robert Kearns has plenty of good “movie” elements, and is often held up by patent system supporters as a clear example of a big company “ripping off” an independent inventor. The movie itself is a huge dramatization, that of course, paints Ford as the big evil company that “stole” the idea of intermittent wipers from Kearns. It’s highly exaggerated from reality, and perpetuates the big myth that invention comes from a “flash of genius” and is the most important part of innovation.
As anyone who’s actually run a business can tell you, the idea is only a tiny part of what’s important. The real innovation is in actually turning the idea into something that works, is useful, is cost effective and (most importantly) is something that people want to buy. Almost every actual product is quite different from the initial “idea” that it came from. Furthermore, despite what the movie appears to portray, lots of folks were working on different methods to create an intermittent wiper, and the methods that Kearns used weren’t such a “flash of genius” either. They were pretty much the next evolution. As we’ve seen it’s pretty common for multiple parties to make the same “next step” obvious breakthroughs at about the same time.
But, Kearns turned the whole thing into a crusade against the auto companies, so it makes a good David vs. Goliath movie storyline. And, despite the way Ford appears to be portrayed in the movie as deliberately copying Kearns’ work, the company was not found to have willfully infringed on the patents. They were found to have infringed — but through their own work, not from having directly taken Kearns idea (the movie suggests otherwise). As you may or may not know, most patent infringement is not “willful,” meaning the company in question didn’t “copy” the idea directly from the inventor or his or her patent, but through simply coming up with the idea themselves independently. And, at the time of Kearns case, the standard for willful infringement was even lower than it is today. Yet, because there’s no independent invention defense, the automakers will still found to have infringed. The end result? All of the car companies had to pay many millions to Kearns, effectively paying multiple times over what the wipers actually should have cost, increasing car prices for all of us. That’s not David vs. Goliath: it’s David making cars more expensive for everyone.
The movie itself may be very entertaining (I’ll probably wait for it to come out on video to check it out), but it’s unfortunate that it promotes the myth of a “flash of genius” being the most important part of innovation, and that it perpetuates the stereotype of “big companies vs. little inventors.” At a time when our patent system needs serious reform, a movie like this only serves to falsely promote the value of patents in the public eye. It’s propaganda, wrapped in a nice Hollywood veneer.